Culture Vulture

Ship her home

Artist Zai Kuning's skeletal ship at the Venice Biennale is a sight to behold and should be displayed on home ground for Singaporeans to appreciate

There are no videos, no flashing lights, none of the fancy high-tech gimmicks that fill so many of the other exhibits at this year's Venice Biennale.

It's just a skeletal rattan ship, ponderously hanging from the ceiling.

Yet, the artwork by Zai Kuning is an impressive achievement. Nestled amid hundreds of international works, it more than holds its own.

It is a piece that Singaporeans can be proud of, very proud - if only more of us would get to see it.

The ship is the centrepiece of the Singapore pavilion, one of more than 80 country pavilions that are part of the Venice Biennale, considered one of the most established and prestigious contemporary art exhibitions in the world.

Titled Dapunta Hyang: Transmission Of Knowledge, the work depicts the imaginary vessel of Malay King Dapunta Hyang Sri Jayanasa of the Srivijayan Empire.

Zai says in the catalogue, which accompanies the work, that when he read about the king and his army of 20,000 on a sacred journey, called Siddhayatra, he began to "imagine how their ships were made... I imagine the cargo they carried; consisting of books... What knowledge is being carried and shared?"

Titled Dapunta Hyang: Transmission Of Knowledge, the rattan ship measures 17m and hangs from the ceiling at the Singapore pavilion at the Venice Biennale. ST PHOTO: MELISSA SIM

He adds: "The idea of making a skeletal ship seems natural; its impact is like experiencing the remains, like a mark, after it has survived some kind of battle."

This is the fifth iteration of the ship since 2014 and the most intricate. It took Zai and his team three weeks to construct the boat on site and troubleshoot as well.

In the corner of the exhibition, a bundle of rattan leans against the wall. The exhibition sitter from the National Arts Council told us it was the bowsprit from the front of the boat, which was chopped off because the 17m ship was too long for the space.

Also a part of the work are stacks of books enshrined in wax and tied together with red thread, and along a wall are 31 black-and-white portraits of mak yong (a traditional South-east Asian dance drama) practitioners.

The ship, says Zai, is his way of sharing a world that has been forgotten; ancestors who have come from a much older time.

"The ship is symbolic of that world. Without the ship, there is no Srivijaya. Without the ship, the transmission of knowledge is impossible."

While he says repeatedly that he is no historian, he has put many years into understanding the orang laut, mak yong and Srivijaya, and that adds to the heft of the work.

"I was not searching for my roots as many people thought I was... No, I was searching for the first people of Singapore," he says.

But even without all this background knowledge, the piece is visually stunning.

The ship itself is majestic, alluring and very apt for the space, which overlooks the water. It's as if Zai's mysterious ship has docked in Venice from a faraway land and continues to transmit knowledge.

Zai's voice as an artist is mature, assured and authoritative, standing out without clamouring for attention.

That said, his work did not pick up the Biennale's top prize.

This year, the Golden Lion prize for the best national pavilion went to German artist Anne Imhof for her work Faust.

The cynic in me always questions when a blue ribbon is definitively pinned on something as subjective as art. But when I first saw Faust, I gasped.

In front of me, two women stared stoically into space, one stood next to two doberman pinschers behind a wire fence, while another had scaled to the top of the fence and sat there looking down at the world below.

The image was harsh and striking.

Enter the pavilion and you are thrown into a position of vulnerability as you cross the raised glass floor.

Below the glass are items such as towels, cutlery, clothes and piles of phone chargers, which should put one at ease because they are familiar everyday objects. But instead, they serve to alienate the viewer because of the barrier between viewer and object.

When an expressionless performer looks me in the eye through the glass floor, I'm immediately unsettled.

The power dynamic is ambiguous: Who is watching whom?

The performance, which consists of scripted and unrehearsed routines, lasts about four hours and I happen to catch the last 30 minutes or so when I am there.

The crowd surrounds two "windows" which open into what looks like equal parts torture chamber and shower room.

Water is sloshing about, one performer is getting drenched but doesn't flinch, another is spray-painting a mirrored wall. It feels like a brutal world that they live in and we, the viewers, are both powerful because we are untouchable, watching from afar, and powerless because we cannot stop what is happening.

Imhof is probably trying to explore many deeper themes and topics and, after reading the information sheet, I swear I understand the work less than before I had read it.

But the work touches me, just as Zai's work does, and that is what matters - to me, at least.

Is Singapore the best country pavilion at the Venice Biennale? Probably not.

But is Zai's work worthy of representing us on the international stage? Undoubtedly so.

Articles and write-ups can do only so much to convince people that a piece of art has merit and is perhaps deserving of taxpayers' money - it has been reported that Singapore spent an average of $750,000 on each of our first six entries to the Venice Biennale, which Singapore started participating in in 2001.

What people need is the opportunity to see the work for themselves.

I believe there are hopes and plans to bring Zai's work back to Singapore or, at least, reconstruct it here, but it will take more planning and resources for that to happen.

As the discussion on public and private funding of the arts is ongoing, perhaps the private sector can do its part to contribute funds or even space - a shopping centre atrium, an office building lobby - so that a piece of work that has represented Singapore can be admired, even critiqued here at home.

Yes, an earlier iteration of the work was displayed in the Esplanade concourse, but this is a different piece and there are people who want to experience it.

A good piece of work shouldn't have to go overseas to be noticed, but more people will pay attention to it now that it has been to the Biennale - that's just how things work.

In isolation, viewers here may not be able to compare Zai's artwork with other nations' efforts, but it is still a piece we can be proud of. We just need it to sail home to touch more people.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 08, 2017, with the headline 'Ship her home'. Print Edition | Subscribe